The festival of Śivarātri and Abhinavagupta

Where the Sun, the Moon, and the other stars,
Set at the same time,
There rises the radiant night (rātri) of Śiva
Spreading a splendour of its own.

Utpaladeva’s Śivastotrāvalī (trans.) Constantine Rhodes Bailly
Śivarātri is the moment of de-individualization or absorption in own Consciousness.                                                             ——-Kṣemarāja

Śivarātri is a pan-Indian festival which has a great relevance to the Hindu value system. Each and every Hindu celebrates it with utmost joy and sincerity. Religious ceremonies in form of bhajana, āratī, rudrābhiṣeka etc. devoted to Lord Śiva are performed in every temple across the country. The literal meaning of the term śivarātri is the night of Śiva or Śiva’s night. But what does it mean? The word śivarātri encompasses a deep philosophical meaning. Śiva is the Supreme substratum in which all the visible and invisible world sleeps or rests or finds repose: शेते तिष्ठति सर्वं जगत् यस्मिन् सः शिवः शम्भुः विकाररहितः…….. । He is also devoid of any qualities and thus pure. The word rātri derives from the root (‘to give’, or ‘to bestow’) which implies to give ānanda (pleasure); and ānanda is the subtlest of the subtle form of Brahman as articulated by sage Varuṇa to his son Bhṛgu as आनन्दो ब्रह्मेति व्यजानात् । The Kulārṇava Tantra mentions that ānanda is the manifest form of Brahman and its abode is the body. In fact, the central theme of the whole tantric literature is “body”.

The trident (triśūlābija maṇḍalam), symbol and yantra of Parama Shiva, representing the triadic energies of parā, parā-aparā and aparā śakti

The night which has a close affinity with Śiva and which imparts ānanda (pleasure) is known as śivarātri. Such auspicious night comes once every year on the 14th night of dark fortnight (amāvasyā) of waning moon (kṛṣṇa pakṣa) in the month of māghaphālguna as mentioned in the Skanda Purāṇa.

माघस्य कृष्णपक्षे या तिथिश्चैव चतुर्दशी ।
शिवरात्रिस्तु सा ख्याता सर्वपापनिषूदनी ।।
तस्य रात्रिः समाख्याता शिवरात्रिः शिवप्रिया ।
तस्यां सर्वेषु लिङ्गेषु सदा संक्रमते हरः ॥
यानि कानि च लिङ्गानि चराणि स्थावराणि च ।
तेषु संक्रमते देवि, तस्यां रात्रौ यतो हरः ।
शिवरात्रिस्ततः प्रोक्ता तेन सा हर-वल्लभा ॥

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Īśāna Saṁhitā mentions that on this night Lord Śiva manifested himself in the form of liṅga.

माघकृष्णचतुर्दश्यामादिदेवो महानिशि ।
शिवलिंगतयोद्भूतः कोटिसूर्यसमप्रभः ॥
तत्कालव्यापिनी ग्राह्या शिवरात्रिव्रते तिथिः ।

There is also another story which says that on this day Lord Śiva got married to Pārvatī. This is the day when Śiva unites with Śakti. The devotee who worships Lord Śiva on this night free themselves from the whirlpool of the worldly existence and unifies with Śiva. But why on this night and what is the reason behind to celebrate this festival on the 14th night of amāvasyā.

Indian philosophical tradition symbolises day as sṛṣṭi (creation) and night as pralaya (dissolution). Creation means to transform one into many, and dissolution means to become one among many. Our mind, senses etc. are running towards various objects in the day, on the other hand, they are all becoming introvert in the night. Thus, in the day, our mind goes towards creation, light, objectivity, or world; while, in the night, it goes towards dissolution, darkness, oneness or the absolute. Eliminating the existence of all the objective phenomena through the process of neti neti, a devotee unifies himself with Śiva. In reality, this is Śivasādhanā. Night – a moment when all objectivity disappears – is the appropriate time for this sādhanā.

Sanskrit grammar and Astrology describes amāvasyā as the moment of time in which the Sun and the Moon remain together; where tantric literature conceives Sun and the Moon as a symbolism of paramātmā and jīvātmā. On 14th of dark fortnight (amāvasyā) of waning moon (kṛṣṇa pakṣa) in the month of māghaphālguna, the Sun remains very close to the moon; and in this very moment, individual self – the form of the moon – re-unites with Supreme self/Siva- the form of Sun.

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Utpaladeva, the grand teacher of Abhinavagupta, in his Śivastotrāvalī unfolds the philosophical meaning of śivarātri. Utapaladeva transforms this external festival into an internal celebration of the transcendental union. He articulates that the light of our own consciousness radiates when the functioning of Sun and Moon ceases to act. Kṣemarāja, the disciple of Abhinavagupta, interprets Sun as prāṇa and Moon as apāna. He says that when the outgoing breath, ingoing breath and all notions of thought cease, there arises the night of Śiva. In this night, neither illuminates there except the light of Consciousness.

यत्र सोऽस्तमयमेति विवस्वाँश्चन्द्रमःप्रभृतिभिः सह सर्वैः ।
कापि सा विजयते शिवरात्रिः स्वप्रभाप्रसरभास्वररूपा ॥ (IV.22)
ज्योतिरस्ति कथयापि न किंचिद्विश्वमप्यतिसुषुप्तमशेषम् ।
यत्र नाथ शिवरात्रिपदेऽस्मिन् नित्यमर्चयति भक्तजनस्त्वाम् ॥ (XV.17)

Where not even the notion of light exists,
Where the whole world remains asleep,
There, in that state of śivarātri,
The devotees, without pause O Lord,
Honor you in your worship.

Abhinavagupta, in his Bhairava Stotra, explains the experience of this union which happens in śivarātri.  In this transcendental union, one’s consciousness dances and sings, and is much joyful. One obtains the absolute that is difficult to be obtained by common men.

नृत्यति गायति हृष्यति गाढं संविदियं मम भैरवनाथ ।
त्वां प्रियमाप्य सुदर्शनमेकं दुर्लभमन्यजनैः समयज्ञम् ॥

Thus, Sivarātri has two meanings; one is internal and other is external. The festival of śivarātri has great importance in Kashmir Śaivism or more precisely Pratyabhijñā School. Kashmir Śaivism conceives Lord Śiva as the repository of all śāstras. At the beginning of kaliyuga, when the world became engrossed in spiritual darkness, Lord Śiva took piety on men and appearing on the Kailāsa mountain in the form of Śrī Kaṇṭha, commanded the sage Durvāsā to spread in the world the knowledge of these śāstras again. Durvāsa, thus commanded, created by the power of his mind, three sons, Tryambaka, Āmardaka and Śrinātha- whom he charged with the mission of establishing spiritual order and teaching men again the ancient and eternal  Śaiva-Śāstras in their three aspects of abheda, bheda, and bhedābheda. The School of Kashmir Śaivism is a treasure-trove of many remarkable thinkers. Some of them are Vasugupta, Somānanda, Utpaladeva, Abhinavagupta and Kṣemarāja. Abhinavagupta is one of the most illustrious thinkers of early medieval India who shaped the debate of Indian knowledge system to a large extent. The work of Abhinavagupta has attracted scholars across the globe for its conceptual richness, rigorous philosophical ideas and complex entanglement of philosophy, aesthetics and mysticism. It is a firm belief that when Abhinavagupta decided to leave this phenomenal world, he went to Bhairava cave in Beerwa village of district Badgam near Srinagar and singing Bhairava stotra along with his disciples entered into that cave and became one with Śiva. This cave is still there in Kashmir. Bhairava Stotra contains only 10 stotras praising Bhairava – one of the forms of Śiva. The verses are not only poetical but also highly philosophical.

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Abhinavagupta in his corpuses wants to give an eternal message for the entire humanity which is as follows that “if for a tiny fragment of time you enter into Śiva’s chamber which is in your inner space of the heart, you know the truth yourself. This is the real meaning of śivarātri – to merge into own consciousness to know consciousness.

(The author is a post-doctoral fellow at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts). 

(Opening image courtesy: Artist Millin Sangha Gujral).



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